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Recording drums is equal parts art and science, and there are no hard-and-fast rules. Much like cooking, personal taste and the genre of music are really much of the context that the recording has to be executed in. One could say beauty is in the ear of the beholder. Below is a compilation of some favorited and tested microphones for recording drums. While applications and techniques vary, and depending on the room, these might be an alternate take on anyone’s current go-to’s. So if a starting point is the goal, or a fresh approach to miking drums is desired, then the following will help or at least make a healthy start to building out that coveted mic locker.
Starting with the kick, miked in or outside, pillow or not, there’s no going wrong with the AKG D112 dynamic mic. Since it can handle up to 160 dB SPL, with a nice attention to lower frequency ranges, one would have the making of a punchy solid kick. The price range sits nicely for those looking to add an option or to just get started. Another choice, which might surprise some is the Soyuz 1973 large diaphragm FET condenser. On a kick, it has an instant vibrancy, with a frequency range that extends into 30Hz, which is going to give the kick an appealing edge. It handles up to 140 dB SPL, so be careful with closer applications, and do use the pad. This is a solid option because not only is it great on kick but you’ll find it's good for many other uses, like guitar and vocals.
Rolling on next to the snare, there are a variety of ways to go about recording snare, and the following would be excellent options: The Shure SM57 surely needs no introduction; this cardioid mic is well suited for the top, or bottom of the snare, potentially even both. Moving coil microphones are wonderful for this use case because of their high SPL handling. Its durability and affordability have it sitting in peak position as a tried and true choice for this snare drum recording, amongst other uses. An alternate choice for the snare drum could be the Telefunken M80. With its super-cardioid pickup pattern, it works well sitting amongst the drum kit, and since it has a wider frequency range from 50 Hz- 18 kHz, it leaves room for both snare rolls and sizzle.
The neighboring hi-hat is a tricky one since closed versus open can create a variety of characteristics to manage while recording. The Beyerdynamic M 160 hypercardioid double ribbon mic is a solid choice because of its great transient response. A well-tested and favorited mic for decades, its applications span beyond the high-hat, so again, one can't go wrong adding this one to the collection. Additionally, many people love the AKG C451 for this purpose. It does well with high SPL at close distances and includes a high pass filter that is useful for this type of placement. A widely regarded studio must have, it's equally useful on other instruments.
When considering the toms and the floor tom, there are a variety of options and specifications—and as always, application is everything! The Sennheiser MD 441-u supercardioid dynamic is a fantastic choice because of its detail and flexibility. There are five positions for the roll-off switch and a treble boost. This kind of flexibility will lend itself to a lot of control depending on the positioning and application. It is a truly well-respected microphone and if it doesn’t wind up on the floor tom, it's because it is in use for something else like vocals or guitars. Also from Sennheiser, one could arguably go with the MD 421 cardioid dynamic. It is known for its accurate low-end response, making it suitable for booming toms, and is very directional, so it is well suited for this use. This mic is also useful in multiple applications, making it a great option to have at least one or two of these in the arsenal.
Cymbals are a tricky category here, depending on what the drummer has in the setup (china, crash, splash, ride?) and the style of the playing. In some cases, the overhead microphones might be all that is required, especially with some ambient or room mics available, but in any case, it may be down to one’s own reasons or needs for spot mics on the cymbals, and in that case, the following would be recommend: The Shure SM81 has a flat response curve, so it's very accurate and is great in applications where RF is a concern. It does require phantom power, but also is good in varying humidity and temperature situations (should the need arise for a mic that can be used on live drums as well.) This cardioid condenser is a classic must-have as it's equally great on pianos and acoustic instruments. For the price point it would be well worth it to grab a pair; who doesn’t love affordable and versatile?
An alternate option would be the AKG 451 (mentioned previously, for the high hat, see above) as well as the Neumann M 49 V tube condenser mic. It's easy to see why this is a stand-out mic, as it's a re-issue of a classic and has some perks that make it a stand-out. Its variable polar pattern makes it flexible and it has that tube warmth. The newer tube has lower noise than before and has an updated RF connection. The frequency range of this mic extends into the lower registers keeping the cymbals from being too harsh and allowing them to have some warmth. Depending on the application and style of the drummer/music this might be the secret sauce to making the cymbals sit in the pocket.
Getting overhead mic placements to sound great is equal parts room sound, genre, technique and placement, and of course the choice of mics. A common choice is the AKG C 414 XLS mics. Since these have swappable polarity patterns it lends them to experimentation and flexibility for a variety of stereo miking techniques. They are an incredibly flexible pair of mics in that they have varying input pads at -6 dB, -12 dB, and -19 dB, but they also have a variety of filters; 40 Hz, 80 Hz, and 160 Hz. AKG has the added guarantee of their accuracy because of their use of the computer-aided matching method, so knowing that the stereo imaging is as accurate as possible. These are a worthwhile investment for any studio mic locker considering their variable application in ambient placements, stereo mic techniques, and of course as drum overheads.
Neumann KM 184 small diaphragm stereo pairs are also a common and trusted choice. Often prized for their lively presence around 9 kHz, they are a favored option for overheads because of this added fresh, crisp quality. Phantom power is required and these are solid-state condensers with a cardioid pick-up pattern. Still an investment but notably these microphones are also excellent on guitars, and are a great high-quality small diaphragm mic, lending itself to versatile applications. They’re fantastic for ORTF or XY pair placements, for example.
There are some honorable mentions for microphones that either have some interesting creative applications or were just too good not to be mentioned. The Neumann M 49 V is an elegant choice for overhead placements or ambient mic placements for drums. It is prized for its rich, warm, and silky qualities, so for any drum recording where that classic sound is sought, this microphone would offer something really special. It has automatic capabilities to adapt to mains voltage and is a tube condenser with variable pattern pick up. The frequency range extends low into the 40 Hz range meaning that there’s going to be a lot of depth to it, especially in combination with its two options of high pass filters. While this mic is also an investment it is one that would be well worth it, considering its versatility in the studio, along with being prized for its other applications, especially vocals.
For something that has an unconventional flavor or an experimental (aka FUN) twist, check out the Scope Labs Periscope omnidirectional mic, featuring a built-in compressor. They can be bought as a pair, which is a really affordable romp for ambient pair placements or overheads on drums. This microphone is not for the faint of heart. There’s nothing clean here! These mics are fantastic on a room placement giving in stant mood or feel to the recording, and the copper body acts as extra grounding from interference. A great pair to have for added fun, sizzle, or the missing secret sauce for creating a unique sound for drum applications, or anything else imaginable!
Of course, there’s an honorable mention for the Coles 4038 ribbon as a mono overhead placement option, although potentially controversial, it is one that many people seem to like. Having this mic around for various placements is a favorite amongst many recording engineers and some even prefer a pair. Prized for the excellent transient response as well as being known for their figure of 8 polarity pattern being accurate in both horizontal and vertical applications. These are worthwhile honorable mentions for their commonly favored application in drum recording.
When outfitting a mic locker for recording drums, everything above would be a great starting point, with something for every budget and stylistic preference. Furthermore, having any of these in rotation would be well advised, since most of them work well for other purposes outside of recording drums! Now go make some noise.